On August 11, 2014, Robin Williams passed away. I’m certain that all of you remember it. It was impossible to escape. When someone who has captivated the world in such a magical way dies, it leaves quite a shadow over those of us who were personally touched by him or her. A great many famous people have died over the past two years, however, at the very least speaking for myself, Robin’s was the most impactful. Because while someone like Muhammad Ali might have been an inspiring American hero, Robin was something more. Not to undermine the lives of the deceased, but Robin Williams was someone who spoke to us all. Someone who at some point in our lives affected us with a touching, oftentimes simultaneously humorous and somber, performance. Someone who whether he be playing a hard-knock therapist, a quick-witted radio announcer, or a lively animated genie, always showed us something a little whimsical and a little powerful, something that would stay with us for the rest of our lives. I wanted to do something to honor Robin in remembrance of that unfortunate day two years ago. For while two years might be an ample time to heal for some, the absence of Robin Williams will always leave a hole that will forever be impossible to fill. Whenever I considered what film to watch in his memory there was truly no question. Dead Poets Society is one of my favorite films, but it is without a doubt my favorite that Robin Williams ever did. It is not only a fantastic movie, but it also showcases Robin’s abilities in a unique and beautiful that evocates the true nature of his talents.
This is not a review of Dead Poets Society. I could sit here and discuss Peter Weir’s direction or praise the acting of the students in this film, but that would not be appropriate for this piece. This is meant to be a look back on what Robin Williams brought to the world in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. I am writing this assuming that you have seen the film. If you have not, I would advise you cease reading this article at once and instead find a way to rectify this lapse in your film repertoire as quickly as possible. Throughout the duration of his life, Robin established himself as an adept comedian. His quirky charm and affinity for interpretation brought a smile to the lips of everyone who saw what he could do. While I never tired of his comedy, my fondness for Robin was never driven by how funny he was, but instead by his introspection. In any film he’s in, Robin always finds a way to show us something deep inside of him and reflect it to us in a personal and intimate way. It’s as if in every performance he gives, we are given a chance to read a piece of his private diary, in which he instills both wisdom and sadness. This rare gift-this intrinsic sagacity-is never on greater display than it is in Dead Poets Society. In the role of John Keating, Robin Williams bears his soul to us all. He shows us the true beauties of life. He shows us culture and compassion. He shows us volition and virility. He shows us freedom and friendship; as well as sorrow and sincerity. One could argue that while Robin performance is definitely skillful, it is really just a testament to the screenplay that his character is so great. To that, I say nonsense. While yes the script is terrific, it has the capacity to be pretentious, distant and manufactured. With such lines as the repeated “Carpe Diem” and “No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world” could possibly be perceived as pandering and vainglorious if delivered with the wrong emotion behind them. Robin Williams takes these beautiful, albeit lofty lines, and delivers them with such a sincere and jubilant manner that it takes any worry of meretriciousness and transforms it into a wholly brilliant and inspiring bit of cinema that could only be accomplished through him as the actor. As difficult as it is to say, someone else could have played the therapist Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting or the genie in Aladdin. While Robin Williams definitely filled those roles better than anyone else could have, they still weren’t particularly specific to his abilities. However, there is no doubt in my mind that no one, and I do mean absolutely no one, else could have played John Keating.
The film Dead Poets Society explores death quite a bit. In fact, the way that we cope with death and the way it seeps into every aspect of our lives is a major theme in the film. Upon reviewing the film in Robin’s wake is both poetic and poignant at the same time. It’s very interesting and quite a bit sad to listen to Robin discuss the concept of dying with these young men. In his first teaching scene, he tells the then boys, “We are food for worms, lads. Because believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.” While this scene is difficult to see without thinking about what Robin went through, it is not nearly as difficult as what happens at the end of the film. The turning point of the film, for those of you who do not remember, occurs whenever one of Keating’s students, Neil Perry, commits suicide. While the scene itself is already quite morose, perhaps the most devastating shot of all is the scene in which Keating sits at Neil’s desk and mourns him in private, with tears that feel genuine enough to break the heart of even the most stone-cold of us all. Yes, Robin’s suicide is felt heavily in Dead Poets Society. Of course back then they did not know just how significant their movie would be.
I used the word poetic earlier to describe the feeling of watching this film knowing what Robin went through. In all honesty, it feels somewhat appropriate that the name of the movie is, in fact, Dead Poet’s Society. In the end, the scenes that affect the viewer the most wind up not being those in which Robin discusses death, but rather those in which he discusses life. “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” This quote stays with me time and time again. The passion in Robin’s voice when he delivers this message to his students is incredibly heartbreaking. I shall repeat. “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” It is with this line that I decided that we should not remember Robin for how sad we all were, and are that he died, but rather how happy we are that he ever lived at all. My life would be honestly different if Robin Williams had never existed. I don’t know how drastic a change it would be, but I do know that it would be considerably less special. You will no doubt have noticed that throughout this entire article whenever I didn’t refer to him by his full name, I deemed him as simply “Robin.” That’s because I’ve always felt as though he’s been a personal part of my life. One that is always familiar and never-fading. Robin might be dead, but he will always have a presence in each of our lives. The last scene of Dead Poets Society is indicative of just what Robin’s exit from the world was like. It was unfair and unjust, yet there was nothing we could do. Nothing we could do but stand on our desks and regard him fondly, as the man who taught us what it meant to be alive. And so, in memory of Robin Williams, I sound my barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world.
Image: Robin Williams bidding farewell in the last scene of Dead Poets Society, A Touchstone Pictures Film